Discernment. Online













            Opera originated in Italy. Opera artists require intense training in vocal technique



Even silent films in Hollywood and Bombay were accompanied by live music -- either a piano, some other instrument, or an orchestra. So music has been a part of films even in the silent era



Opera, musical,
masala movie
An extended discussion on opera, the Broadway/West End musical, and the Hindi film, and the tunes that make them tick

Dear Ms Wadhwani

Read your article Bombay dreams, opera stylises ("Since Andrew Lloyd Webber asked A R Rahman to compose for Bombay Dreams, everyone's talking about 'Broadway musicals'. What does 'musical' mean and how is it different from 'opera'?")

I was particularly interested as I am a performing arts student in England and I am doing an assignment entitled "A comparative study between Hindi movies and West End Musicals". West End musicals are the London equivalent of America's Broadway.

Your article addressed well the issue of Western classical opera, but did not really cover 20th century popular musical theatre. I would be very interested to hear anything you have to say on this matter.

If you could spare a moment to write a few lines giving your opinion on how/why Bollywood movies are such a part of our heritage and culture, and the similarities between them and musical theatre, I would be most grateful.

Thank you so much for your time.

Anjali Guptara

Sonya replies:

Dear Anjali,

Your topic sounds really interesting.

Opera is a highly stylized form of music drama in the Western tradition. It is actually a musical, a play set to music -- usually continuous, sometimes interspersed with bits of spoken dialogue. But what distinguishes it from 'musicals' as we know them is the stylized vocal manner. Opera originated in Italy. Artists require intense training in vocal technique, similar to our Indian tradition of classical vocal music. The music is complex and therefore requires more effort to appreciate; it is harder to sing, requiring a frequent use of 'vocal gymnastics'.

The style of music in musical theatre -- in Broadway musicals and in West End theatre -- is a popular style, simpler tunes and developments that generally appeal to a larger audience. The similarity is that both opera and Broadway/West End productions are 'musicals' set to words, enacted on stage by singer-actors.

In fact, if you are in London, you should check out the operas performed on Covent Garden and the English National Opera and go see a popular opera by Puccini or Verdi or Mozart or whatever is on and you'll be able to tell the difference at once. Actually, you only need hear it to tell the difference in styles.

As for 20th century musical theatre, although scholars dispute whether musical theatre originated from the opera, the latter has certainly influenced music theatre by its very nature -- a drama enacted on stage set to music. As a lighter version of opera evolved into operatta, it grew closer to what we know as music theatre.

The change from the classical and semi-classical forms of opera and operatta was influenced by popular stage forms such as the British music hall, vaudeville, burlesque, minstrel shows, variety acts with singers, dancers and magicians, lighter forms of music theatre of Gilbert and Sullivan and finally the music theatre of the '30s, both on Broadway as well as in Britain.

Earlier, musical theatre was a set of songs or musical items thrown into larger wordy stage plays, just as Hindi movies are, but later, they evolved into more complete musicals with minimal speech and in fact, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Sondheim and others have even evolved a speech-singing-like effect (check out Aspects of Love) just as they used to do in opera, so that the entire play is in music.

As to why Bollywood movies are such an integral part of our culture, let me see. One, universally, movies are an integral part of every ethnic community, since it is an accessible, fascinating, audio-visual medium that speaks a universal language, and is far easier to appreciate than books, drama, painting and music individually. Films integrate these various art forms and since they require no erudition on the part of the audience, appeal directly to the emotions. And this is more so in countries where movies are actually produced, like in India, America, France, Italy, etc.

In India we do not have a popular music culture or a popular concert culture or drama or any other form of entertainment which has mass appeal (only now has Indipop come to stay). So the only inexpensive, accessible form of mass entertainment has been films. In America, there were popular forms of music, popular forms of stage entertainment, not so here. Also a reason why music itself is so important in Hindi films. Until recently, music didn't exist as a large scale medium of entertainment outside of movies. I think this theory has been talked about by Satyajit Ray. And I tend to subscribe to it. Of course it isn't as if Hindi films created music. Since there was a culture of classical music, ghazals, and devotional music in India, it was only natural that these would be adapted to a more popular form once Hindi movies entered the talkie era. Since classically trained musicians required a platform to make a living, Hindi movies offered a way out.

Also, silent films in Hollywood and Bollywood were accompanied by live music -- either a piano, some other instrument, or an orchestra. So music, in a sense, has been a part of films even in the silent era. This music could be improvised to highlight emotions, to sympathise with characters, to dramatize the action. So music became a part of talkies since it was known that it had the power to communicate even without words.

And of course there were the Broadway musicals to influence Hindi films with their stopping of the action and taking off on a romantic number. With Naughty Marietta, The Merry Widow and with Broadway composers like Jerome Kern and George Gershwin to set the trend, these were also adapted to successful Hollywood films. So could Bollywood be far behind?

Since we didn't have stage musicals of our own, we used our musical culture to create our own kind of musicals on film. That's the way I see it.

Also, since it was done initially and the formula seemed to work, it has now become a convention and film makers are afraid to experiment outside this form.

So the similarities are there. Except that there is a trend in musical theatre to make a complete musical of it, as in opera, not so in Hindi films, which still need dialogue. In both, as well as in opera, the action is halted, and the singer/s take off on their feelings. Then the song stops and the action continues. But in recent musicals like Aspects of Love or Phantom of the Opera, and in classical opera, the action also evolves musically, unlike in Hindi films which have not progressed as 'musicals' have in that manner. They are still governed by dialogue.

Another difference. Originally, both, the way songs were treated in musical theatre and in Hindi films was highly unrealistic, choreographed, around trees... But now, musicals have evolved to integrate the music with the action, to make it more 'realistic' whereas in Hindi films, this unrealistic choreography has not changed at all.

Opera, they say, is about love and death. So also the musical and Hindi films -- still about love and death (excluding 'art' cinema of Europe or some exceptions in Hollywood. Of course, the new wave is dead in India). Whatever better way to express these primeval emotions?

Hope this is useful to you.

Sonya Wadhwani

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